How does one react when they find out the news that their mentor is closing a chapter of their career? At first, compete shock, and then one becomes comfortable with the idea and accepts it. That is how you associated them to their current position in life and now it is no longer going to hold true. That full-time occupation or passion will always be a part of them, but now they are morphing into a different phase in their life. I don’t think it matters if you are a teacher, doctor, entrepreneur, chef, or restaurateur. A couple of months ago I found out that my mentor, my culinary father Chef Brian Polcyn (yes, coauthor of Charcuterie and Salumi), was giving up the reins as chef/proprietor of Forest Grill, outside Detroit.
Unless you really know Chef Polcyn or follow his antics, especially when he is with Ruhlman, you would also be taken aback by his decision. This is a big deal for the culinary scene here in metro Detroit and for me, personally. I have known for some time that this “retirement” was going to happen. We had a talk about it back in Chicago last year, but I did not know it was going to happen this year. I was thinking 2018 or later. Nope, now.
As with anything pertaining to Chef Polcyn, even the send-off needed to be somewhat grand. I proposed two dinners for him to attend, one a “roast” with local chefs sharing their personal stories of their Polcyn experiences and the other a “greatest hits” menu featuring dishes from restaurants he previously owned. One of the days I was hounding him when he was in the kitchen requesting his menu for the “greatest hits” dinner. He took a few pieces of paper and jotted it all down. Handed me the papers and said “Here you go.” Quickly I scurried down to the computer to get the menu ready for social media and whatnot. Then it just hit. There I was holding my chef’s last menu. It was an intense feeling. Reading each of the dishes, seeing the names of the restaurants. I was flooded with all of the times we had spent together at the three restaurants I worked at with him. All of the highlights, laughs, and flops that both of us experienced together, including the memory of a 500-person coursed-out wedding dinner with no kitchen. “Hey, no problem.”
Ultimately Chef Polcyn is my culinary father, teaching me, guiding me. There were immeasurable amounts of kindness and also the occasional “school of hard knocks.” He has seen me at my best and happiest times and at my lowest moments. He was the one who urged me to move back to Detroit after my last stint in Chicago and not to look back.
I met him when I was eight years old and he was in his twenties. Polcyn cooked for a community event that my mom chaired at the Detroit Public Library. The event honored World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors, and activists of Poland’s Solidarity movement. They came together to commemorate the outbreak of World War II. From there my family and I became fans and followed him all around Detroit to places like Auburn Hills, Pontiac, Milford, and finally Birmingham. We’ve have been Polcyn fans for over 30 years. He is the one responsible for my love of lardo. I remember the first time I had it at Five Lakes Grill, in Milford. It was delicately wrapped around a grissini breadstick. All I could think about was, what is this little piece of heaven. Oh, just cured pork fat. YUM! I devoured what was placed on the table. I attended many morel dinners, Michigan wine celebrations, wild game nights, and much more. Chef Brian was a part of all of our family celebrations and private functions. His spirit and enthusiasm is contagious.
After completing graduate school in Chicago I remember asking him if going to culinary school was a good idea. He thought it was a terrible idea. Soon I became his assistant, his teaching assistant, a manager at the restaurant. I became the girl who could get work done, the smoker girl, the sausage girl, the salumi girl, the “crazy one.”
I am also grateful to Polcyn because he is the one who introduced me to Michael. As Polcyn’s assistant I began researching for Salumi and, shortly thereafter, Michael Ruhlman hired me as his assistant. My only “fan girl” moment occurred at Schoolcraft College when I met Ruhlman. Ideas were shuffling in my head … I read all the books you have written, and now you are here. “Don’t fuck up, Juocys!” I said to myself…. And is this really happening… Wow I have an opportunity to work for two culinary visionaries.” I am thankful every day for that opportunity Chef Polcyn provided me.
Chef Brian is an old-school chef, filled with tradition and grandeur. French, Italian, Swiss, and German methods, with a touch of modern. “Fat is flavor,” he says again and again. “Fat is our friend. We love fat!”
He was always on the cutting edge of the scene here in Detroit, but also in the bigger scheme of things culinary-wise in the United States. He was doing wood-fired food before it was trendy; there was no coined term for “farm to table”—you just cooked with the best ingredients from local farmers; charcuterie always. The food he makes is always fresh, simple, and delicious.
Funny thing is that this is just an end of an era here in the Metro Detroit area not an end of a talented individual. He has spent over 35 years cooking in various restaurants, many his own and now it is time for him to move on to a new direction. Polcyn will continue to teach and shape the minds of the culinary youth at Schoolcraft College, spread the word of lard through Cured Cuisine, and consult with Garden Fresh. It looks like a charcuterie line is in the works, too.
Nothing really comes to an ultimate end in the culinary world, nor in life for that matter. All of us are constantly changing and finding new paths in our lives. Only certain individuals find the strength to take a new direction and carry on. Seeing chef take this step is a great example of how one can rediscover, re-brand, oneself and simply embrace change.
He has had a productive professional life with various restaurants, numerous accolades, two books with Michael, and teaching others, plus a wonderful family and supportive friends.
I have been honored to work with this man and beside him on and off the line.
Here’s to you, Chef Brian Polcyn. Cheers!
If you liked this post, then check out these other links:
- My past posts on Chicken Eggs, Genius Recipes Food 52, Taking Back Our Pasta, and Everything We Eat.
- Emilia’s past guest posts: Eat Retreat, Blueberry Pierogi, and Holiday Cookies 2014.
- Where it all began with Polcyn and Ruhlman: The Soul of a Chef.
© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.